James C. Schaap

Contributor

Dr. Jim Schaap doesn’t know what on earth happens to his time these days, even though he should have plenty of it, retired as he is (from teaching literature and writing at Dordt College, Sioux Center, IA). If he’s not at a keyboard, most mornings he’s out on Siouxland’s country roads, running down stories that make him smile or leave him in awe. He is the author of several novels and a host of short stories and essays. His most recent publications include Up the Hill: Folk Tales from the Grave (stories), and Reading Mother Teresa (meditations). He lives with his wife Barbara in Alton, Iowa. 

Ways to Connect

Wikimedia Commons

  

By the time American troops got to Europe in 1917, African-Americans had an established, but not celebrated history in military service of our country. In 1862, under the direction of Thomas Wentworth Higgenson, the sworn abolitionist and literary heartthrob of Emily Dickinson, the first federally authorized Black military unit, the First South Carolina Volunteers, went to war.

The Great Killer

Oct 15, 2018
Wikimedia Commons

When Edgar Hartman came down with the mumps, it laid him up for a month. That may seem unlikely. Mumps? Hartman was a 26-year-old soldier who'd just completed basic training and was actually aboard the ship and awaiting departure when he got hit with what most of us think of a simple childhood disease. 

Hennessey Public Library

Like just about every other town from sea to shining sea, Hennesey, Oklahoma, will celebrate its own pioneer days this summer--parades and burgers, gospel quartets, and a mud bog full of slippery pigs. There’ll be more horses and cattle than your ordinary burg, because Main Street, Hennessey is the Chisolm Trail. In the 1870s, downtown Hennessey was the world's largest cattle yard.

Wikimedia Commons

We don't know much about the boy. Maybe he was everyone else's last choice. Could be. Not much of a warrior, maybe his parents set him up with this girl, or there'd never have been a marriage at all. 

The girl wore some scars from the smallpox that rampaged through her village. Her Huron father and Mohawk mother both died, as did a host of others. The truth? --the girl, Tekakwitha, was forever sickly thereafter. She couldn't have been a doll, but her adoptive father was the village headman. 

Wikimedia Commons

Seems easy enough, simple and true: once you're free, that’s it--no going back. Free at last. Makes sense.

Well, not so. In the case of more than one slave and former slave, being free for a time, or having been free for months or even years, was not a ticket to ride because by law in these United States it was altogether possible and perfectly legal for a free man or woman to be returned to an owner and thus chained up once more, improbable as that may seem.

Wikimedia Commons

I was a boy in the 1950s, forty long years after November 11, 1918, Armistice Day, when the unimaginable carnage of the First World War finally ended. As a kid, I knew very little about my great uncle, who, by way of a grenade thrown 100 years ago next month, met his death in some battlefield gully in France. What I knew is that he'd been killed in the Great War, and that my parents had better attend Decoration Day rallies in the cemetery south of town.

Wikimedia Commons

Seems to me that houses these days have no attics, and I think that’s sad.

In what might be his most famous book, Curtis Harnack, born and reared just outside Remsen, spends an entire essay on the attics he explored as a kid in his ancient Iowa farm house, one complete chapter of his celebrated We Have All Gone Away. 

That wasn’t enough. A few years later he followed up with yet another memoir of the farm, The Attic, proving thereby that attics are actually treasure troves.

Library of Congress's Prints and Photographs division

Those in the know were not particularly surprised to see Kaitlin Bennett come on campus around graduation dolled up as she was--her mortar board darlingly decorated with a dare, and her brother's assault rifle, with scope, slung over her shoulder. News stories claim that she was an outspoken 2nd Amendment advocate during her tenure as a student and that she wasn't at all shy about shooting off her mouth about guns.   

Battle of the Spurs

Aug 13, 2018
Wikimedia Commons

There's something vintage Old Testament about the whole story, something that feels like myth. But it happened; and just a bit north of Topeka, an unkept highway marker up on a hill tells part of the story that can't be doubted. What can is far more fascinating.

Wikimedia Commons

It's like a movie, a set piece from a show like The Music Man, set right here in Iowa. Pioneer days, 1865: a steam engine belching a plume so thick you can hike on it pulls a string of cars through eastern Iowa's rolling hills. Aboard a flat car sits a church bell, sturdily strapped to prevent carnage. 

That bell attracts a crowd, so whenever the engine blasts out a warning to a town down the pike, people gather to gawk--and listen. A whole crowd of rubber-neckers have heard about that bell, so it's rung in every hamlet.

Internet Archive Book Images

It's a stretch to think of Robin Hood on the Great Plains. Dakota warriors could do magic tricks with a bow and arrow, but somehow the hero of the Sherwood Forest would be a foreigner in a landscape without trees. The plains just ain't the place for Robin Hood.

But let’s try. Think of him emerging, angel-like, from a broad field of 12-foot hybrid corn in yet another Field of Dreams. Suddenly, there he is in green leotards. Friar Tuck is with him, and Little John, and his entire merry band.

Jim Schaap
Ally Karsyn


The night Martin Luther King was shot, four of us—small-town, small-college, white boys—were following the Gulf’s eastern shore on an all-night trek from south Florida to New Orleans. It was spring break, 1968—50 years ago.

Don't remember where I heard it, but the conversation wasn't directed at me.  I must have been sitting somewhere among a whole group of people when I overheard a mom telling someone else about her boy, how he was really into his own music, how he was in three or four bands and had already produced his own CDs, how he was going to make music his career, wanted to be a singer/songwriter.

Sure, I thought. He and a half million others. Maybe more.

"That's all he lives for these days," she was saying, or something to that effect. She was proud of him, and I was cynical.

When it killed, cholera did so with astonishing quickness. From the moment symptoms appeared --excessive diarrhea and vomiting, sunken eyes in a blueish face--till the moment those eyes closed forever was often a matter of hours.

Once the contagion was recognized, a steamer named St. Ange pulled over just south of here at the mouth of the Little Sioux River.

Two Roman Catholic priests, Black Robes, were aboard, holy men, Belgian born but dedicated to missions here. Both had notable records of selflessness, but only one would do good any longer.

Amy Meredith

You've probably never heard of Hermann the German and likely never stopped to greet him in New Ulm, Minnesota. Then again, you could have driven through town and not seen him at all. You've got to go south and up into the wooded hills.

But once you're there, he's a can't-miss. Hermann the German stands 32-feet tall--you heard that right. What's more, his statue stands 102 feet above town--way up there. Hermann the German ain't no "small wonder"--he's huge.

Howard Chandler Christy

Willa Cather’s My Antonia is 100 years old, published the same year tens of thousands of doughboys were killed in France and Belgium, thousands more dying of epidemic influenza even before they arrived in Europe. Cather’s classic novel brings the region alive, just as does “Roll Call on the Prairie,” an essay she published in the Red Cross magazine.

Today, Willa Cather’s tall-grass people are the “small wonders.” Here’s what she wrote.

You got to love Carry A. Nation, a woman who listened when the Lord God almighty told her to uphold the law in Kansas and bring to an glorious end the miserable indecency of those who pedaled booze in utter disregard of the law.

US Bureau of Land Management

You have to hunt to find it, but here and there along the way you’ll find stone markers, set down a century ago to memorialize a highway that for a couple of rowdy decades swept through the land not so far away, on its way to nothing less than the promise of the good life. It’s the Oregon Trail.

The first white folks to "do" the trail were the Whitmans, a couple of newlywed missionaries bound for eastern Washington. It was 1836. Mrs. Whitman's letters home were a marvel when they were published out east, sparking a romance for the west in hearts and minds all over this nation.

Caroline Fraser says that what Laura Ingalls Wilder wrote down about Kansas, long ago, says a great deal about her, even though the Kansas prairie was home to her very first memories. She wrote those memories down on "Big Chief" tablets and never intended them for publication, unlike so much else she put to writing. Just for the record, Caroline Fraser's Prairie Fires: The American Dreams of Laura Ingalls Wilder, just won the Pulitzer. It's a great read.

James C Schaap

We were standing atop a miniature mountain, looking out over the Big Sioux River from a statuesque bluff not all that far from the confluence of the Missouri and the Big Sioux, over the prairie land of Broken Kettle Grasslands Preserve, 3000 acres of sheer beauty.  No one else was there.

James C Schaap

Oddly enough, the empire began by way of a very sore bum. An Englishman named William Brooks Close, who, with his brothers, was in Philadelphia for a rowing match in 1876, so banged up his posterior in practice, that he could not sit without pillows. While the rest of the crew continued to work out, but he had to sit out. 

Eleanor Grandstaff Collection

She and her husband went to the revival because the church was their church too, sort of. They hadn't been shy about telling their neighbors they liked the United Brethren fellowship but weren't that hot on all that stuff about hell.

Maybe the revival’s title should have kept them away: "Hell, What it is. Where it is. Who Goes There." They went anyway.

Wikimedia Commons

  

Wikimedia Commons

President Woodrow Wilson, like each and every President--and all of us--was a bundle of contradictions, his very soul a nest of hooks. From the time he was a kid, he wanted to be in government. A portrait of Gladstone hung in his boyhood bedroom, and he made no bones about it--he wanted to be a statesman.

Duncan, Patricia D. / Wikimedia Commons

It took me 31 years of Iowa living to take my first steps on real native prairie, the kind my great-grandparents must have set upon when they arrived in northwest Iowa in the 1880s. Thirty-one years. Seems like a lifetime.

But then, real native prairie goes at a premium in this corner of the state. You can stumble on a few sloped patches of original grasses along the bluffs of the Big Sioux River, but for decades already the land has been drawn-and-quartered by the endless row crops of a gigantic garden. 

Wikimedia Commons

Given the scale of what once was, it wouldn’t be difficult to call the place “Siouxland's biggest fossil,” a sprawling, endless petrifaction. Walk out the door of the lobby, keep the walls on your left and circle the entire place--it'll take you the better part of a half hour because the place is gargantuan.

A century ago, it had to have been perfectly colossal because 116 years later it still is. If you've never seen it, drive up sometime. It’ll stop you in your tracks.

National Park Service

Very little of the great Missouri River looks as it did when Standing Bear and his Ponca band lived beside it, right there at the confluence of the “the Big Muddy” and the Niobrara. Four huge dams brought discipline to a madcap river far too unruly. But some say the segment of the river most like the Missouri Lewis and Clark navigated is right there—from the mouth of the Niobrara south to Yankton.

Bleeding Kansas

Feb 26, 2018
Wikimedia Commons

Since 1920, the Osawatomie/Paola game was the Super Bowl, the game no one missed, the big one that shut down both Kansas towns and most the countryside. For 93 years it went on.

But the rivalry got started long before that, if you read the history. For a time in the 1850s, those two burgs did a whole lot more than mount great passing games. Kansas was bleeding in the 1850s. Just about everyone opening up the sod on the new state's eastern edge did so because they wanted to fight, wanted to win, sometimes at all costs. 

Hammerin' Hank

Feb 19, 2018
Wikimedia Commons

He was just 23 years old when, in 1957, he won the MVP award. I was in third grade, and hard as it might be to believe, I don't think I thought of him as Black. He'd come up from the Negro league in fact, the very last player to arrive in the Bigs, at a time when African-Americans were just beginning to get a place in major league baseball dugouts. 

Seems to me that Billy Bruton played next to him in centerfield, so he wasn't the only African-American on the roster. But he was early. Those old pics of that 1957 team--World Champ Milwaukee Braves!--have four or five others.

Wikimedia Commons

When James Fennimore Cooper complained about the novel he was reading, his wife told him to put up or shut up, to write a better one himself. That tiff launched the Cooper’s career, a man considered America’s first novelist. His output was huge, even though Mark Twain claimed, “his English is a crime against the language.” That's an unsettling review. 

Pages